This is the second selection of Labour Review articles by Bill Hunter from the early 1980s showing the historic role of Labour ‘lefts’ over the post-war period. This contains an important analysis for today looking at ‘left’ Labour and the refusal to break with the right-wing. Here, Bill shows the record of Eric Heffer, who began as a union militant but had moved into the Labour bureaucracy by the 1960s. Original article, “From syndicalism to parliamentary cretinism: the case of Eric Heffer”.
Along with Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, Eric Heffer is the most prominent leader of the ‘left’ in the Labour Party. The following outline political history of the Merseyside member of this duo is meant as a contribution to a political understanding of the nature of this leadership. The recorder of this history declares that, despite the amazing lack of principle therein, any resemblance to actual persons in the labour movement and their actions is absolutely authentic.
Eric Heffer appeared in Liverpool in the early 1950s. His subsequent course was determined by his refusal to subordinate himself to the revolutionary discipline necessary to lead the working class. In this period he called himself an ‘independent Marxist’ — i.e. independent of the revolutionary party and revolutionary discipline. He sought for theoretical justification in Rosa Luxemburg.
He was a joiner, well-known in the building trade in ship repair and with a reputation as a militant. For the greater part of the decade, together with a handful of other syndicalists and sectarian ultra-lefts, he was a member of the anti-parliamentarian group known as the Socialist Workers’ Federation. They published a small paper called first Revolt, and then, later Socialist Revolt, ‘The Strike is Mightier than the Vote’ reads the main headline in Revolt issue number five. Already, in number two, Eric S. Heffer had written the leading article entitled ‘Workers Power: which way forward?’
The question which unties the overwhelming majority in the Labour Party [he wrote] including Attlee, Bevan and the Trotskyists is that socialism will come through parliamentary action. The Labour Party is above all else a parliamentary party and the divisions and wards are nothing but cogs in the electoral machine.
[Heffer mentions Trotskyists because at this time Bill and other Trotskyists were in the Labour Party because of the possibilities for building a group of Trotskyists with workers and also using a Labour Party newspaper Socialist outlook to build in the working class and that openly criticise the Labour leadership (see Life Long Apprenticeship by Bill Hunter. He was expelled in 1954. Editors]
At this time, a few short years before he became one himself, he waxed sarcastic about parliamentarians. “Undoubtedly, these parliamentarians are suffering from the delusion that parliament expresses the mythical ‘will of the people’” he declared, and at the end of his article he firmly stated: ‘the time has come to stop worshipping the state organs of the capitalist class. We must think and act as revolutionaries. The situation demands it.”
But thinking and acting as revolutionaries did not mean building the necessary revolutionary organisation. Later, in the Socialist Revolt dated October-December 1956 we find Eric S. Heffer attempting to answer the question ‘What kind of Party?’ His article told us: “The myth inherent in Bolshevist organisation was developed to a high degree by Trotsky and used with great ability by Stalin…Trotsky’s crimes were not that he was an ‘imperialist agent’, (that is nonsense) but that he helped to develop the weapons that Stalin used.” The final sentence in the article reads: ‘In rejecting the centralised party we do not reject revolutionary Marxism but in fact apply it to British conditions and according to British working class traditions.’
To this picture of Heffer it must be added that in these months when Stalinism was in deep crisis and the Trotskyist movement was winning the Liverpool leadership of what was then a strong Young Communist League, Heffer was heard to declare: “When I’m accused of it now, I don’t deny I’m a Trotskyist.” The Trotskyists, however, denied it quite emphatically and definitely.
At the same time as denouncing the Labour Party in sectarian articles, Heffer was keeping the door open. He was under the strong pull of social democracy. Eventually, at the end of the 1950s he became a Labour councillor. Marxists have truly declared that a sectarian is but someone frightened by his own opportunism.
In 1960 Heffer proved his worth to the Establishment and to the reformist bureaucracy. In the seamen’s strike of that year, together with Simon Mahon, the right wing Catholic MP for Bootle, he worked to end this unofficial struggle.
Originally published in Socialist Voice number 24 – June 2016.
To be continued in next issue of SV.